Cursing in Fiction: Personal Preferences Abound

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Cursing is a divisive topic that many people don’t seem to notice when it comes to critiquing fiction.  It pops up at times, but more as a statement in a review than a discussion.  Some people get squirmy with certain words while others shrug them off without a problem.  If you drop too many F-Bombs, you’ll get at least one reader who gets turned off to the whole story.  So, cursing may have to be considered more often than an author realizes.

Of course, this is very difficult because people have different standards and ideas of what constitutes a swear word.  I’ve been lectured about using ‘Damn’ and ‘Hell’ as if they’re as bad as ‘Fuck’ and ‘Shit’.  Yet, I don’t see those two words as swear words because I’ve heard them so often.  ‘Bastard’ is another, but it doesn’t get as much hate as ‘Bitch’.  Ran into one person who was angry that the word ‘Ass’ was used even though it was used in place of the word ‘Donkey’.  Every reader is going to have their own belief in what is good and bad language with several forgetting that they don’t set the standards for everyone.  Hence, fighting occurs.

An author needs to gauge if the curse words are necessary too.  The heavy ones truly change the tone of a story and can alter how characters are perceived.  Living people aren’t the only ones judged by their use of colorful vocabulary.  If you think F-Bombs work for the world, story, and whoever is saying it then go for it.  Otherwise, you can find other insults to use that aren’t as charged.  If you work in fantasy and non-Earth science fiction then you can make up your own.  Funny how a reader who gets upset at the word ‘Fuck’ won’t react to a word that is clearly the fictional equivalent.  Seriously, use the word ‘Shag’ around someone who doesn’t come from a culture that uses it as a term for sex and see how they react differently than if you say ‘Fuck’.

Touching on that last point a bit, this does show that it isn’t so much the word, but the weight a person places on it.  These curse words are only bad because we have been raised to believe they’re bad.  All of them have safe equivalents that don’t get the same reaction even though they get used the same way.  ‘Asshole’ is really a synonym for ‘Jerk’.  ‘Shit’ is a synonym for ‘poop’.  ‘Fuck’ means sex and helps emphasize things.  ‘Fucking stupid’ is no different than ‘utterly stupid’.  So, you’re going against psychology here.

Personally, I don’t use swear words in most of my stories.  I may drop a ‘bitch’, ‘shit’, or ‘asshole’ in there.  Most times, those don’t make it out of the editing stage, but I think a few stay in.  Of course, Bedlam is where I used tons of cursing.  Cassidy’s catchphrase is basically ‘Shut the fuck up, Lloyd’.  It comes off that I had to just get it out of my system, which is partially true.  I curse a bunch in my own life when I’m not at work, so I have to hold back that urge with writing the cleaner stories.  A series where the characters cursing can be rather freeing even though it was one of the top complaints from people.  I don’t think I’ll have this happen in any other series though.  Sometimes dealing with people being sensitive about these words just drains me because nobody cares if the author was fine with it.

I’m just going to end this with a video showing more wisdom on the topic than I could ever muster:

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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9 Responses to Cursing in Fiction: Personal Preferences Abound

  1. Sensible advice, Charles. I don’t use too many swear words when I write. I guess my stories don’t lend themselves to swearing. When I read a book with swearing and it is used in context I don’t mind. When the swearing is apropos of nothing I get turned off.

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  2. What I think is especially weird is how many readers have no problem with a story full of graphic violence and such, even on the part of the protagonist… but let the villain say hell/i> or <dammit just once, and that’s going too far, apparently.

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    • It’s definitely weird. I’ve been told Hell and damn get people uppity due to religious connotations. So it’s strange when someone gets angry over those, but don’t bat an eye at eviscerations or the word ‘fuck’.

      Small thanks to autocorrect for not changing the word to ‘duck’.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    I think I have a couple in a story. But the ones that work in our world don’t really make sense in my made-up world.

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  4. I’m shocked that you didn’t get a snarky comment about this very post. I have written something similar for SE, but go beyond just swearing. Don’t know if I’ll even post it. I’ve gotten those reviews, too, and I’ve never gone over the top with it. I find it hard to write in some societies without it. My modern world series is one, and rougher groups like pirates seems to make sense, too. I’m tempted to make up my own for the space opera I’m writing.

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